As Rob pulled up to my little haven in West Seneca to pick me up on St. Patrick’s Day, I threw on my Buffalo Bisons jersey. My Bisons jersey is one of my better togs because it can give a sleek sheen to an otherwise somewhat frumpled outfit. It was also St. Patrick’s Day, and the jersey’s green sleeves and piping and orange lettering met my immediate need for Irish colors. Rob, being a close follower of professional sports, didn’t take long to spot it and ask “Oh, are you re-establishing your loyalties now?”
“Hey, you did catch the Bears shirt I’m wearing under this, right?” I asked him. It certainly sounded natural as a response, and as a follower of professional sports myself, I did feel a bit defensive.
“Oh, so you’re saying you’re a Buffalo guy on the outside, but true Chicago on the inside,” he concluded. I flashed him my piratical half-grin half-sneer which I reserve to tell people to go to hell in the most affectionate way possible.
This is something sports fans who move from one metro area to another struggle with, and they all find different solutions. It’s said that a real fan never leaves his team, but in reality, many do. Some of the ones who don’t simply adopt the more geographically convenient team while continuing to cheer for the team they watched and loved since childhood. My mother took this route; she grew up on Long Island, embracing the hot new teams in town when they arrived: The New York Jets in football and the New York Mets in baseball. Since Buffalo’s baseball team is the minor league Bisons, she didn’t have to worry about turning her back on the Mets. But she also adopted the local NFL team, the Buffalo Bills, and she supports both the Bills and the Jets. This drives a lot of locals crazy because the teams play in the same division. My situation was different in some ways and similar in others, but here is my ultimate analysis and the rationale behind it. I love all of these teams, but if you wonder who I would cheer for when they play against each other (and people do) these are my choices.
Hockey: Buffalo Sabres/Chicago Blackhawks
I adopted the Blackhawks upon my move to Chicago in large part because I had no major reason to hate them, and the Sabres and Blackhawks play in different conferences. It was a little unusual because the Sabres were in the first of their two best seasons, both of which culminated with conference finals appearances with one President’s Trophy, while the Blackhawks were deeply mired in the basement and weren’t looking like they could so much as reach the bottom step to begin the ascent out. They clearly weren’t going anywhere quickly, and indifference and contempt for the team’s mismanagement had reached such a level that Chicago’s minor league hockey team, the Chicago Wolves, were outdrawing their NHL brothers. (The Wolves, by the way, won the Calder Cup, their league title, in 2008) Despite their ineptitude, I was attracted to their storied history, colorful look, and hard-hitting image. Being a naturally jaded Buffalo kid, I could take more hockey ineptitude and looked forward to watching my newly adopted team lose.
Then in late 2007, something unexpected happened. Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz died. Bill’s business methods were aged, and he went as far as to black out the team’s home games. His position as the team’s owner was taken up by his son Rocky, who gave the Blackhawks a major overhaul which resulted in a sudden turnaround. In 2008, the team was a potential challenger. In 2009, the Hawks were serious contenders. And in 2010, I saw them do in just a few years what I am spending my life still waiting for the Sabres to do: Drink beer from the Stanley Cup. It helped that their star player, Patrick Kane, was raised in Buffalo. But I never played little league hockey on the ice of United Center, which I’ve done on the Sabres’ home ice. I’ve never yelled and screamed and felt frustration with a bad season in Chicago, which becomes indifferent instead of frustrated with bad hockey.
Decision: Sabres. I love the Blackhawks to death. I wholeheartedly support them and wear their crest with pride. But my family and friends all share my favorite hockey memories with the Sabres, not the Blackhawks.
Baseball: New York Yankees/Chicago White Sox
That I – or anyone in Buffalo, really – cheer the Yankees makes no sense whatsoever. They’re an uber-rich global team from the part of the state that no self-respecting Buffalonian can stand. They prefer offensive flair to gritty, dirty hands scrapping and defense, hire reputed cheaters without a second thought, and require their players to be faceless monoliths. But the Yankees played a big role in my social development when I started trying to crawl out of my social hole in college. Yes, folks in my college fought over traditional issues – the abortion debate was starting to crack under extreme pressure, and George W. Bush was fighting to rally support for an invasion of Iraq. One of the other hot issues, however, was the fight over whether MLB should instate a salary cap. The Yankees were the team most of us worshipped, and knowing the summer escapades of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and the rest allowed me access to a lot of pre-class conversations that otherwise would have flown over my head. When I worked for PBS, my team bonded over the Yankees. They were the one thing we all had in common.
When I moved to Chicago, I knew I wasn’t going to cheer for the cutesy frat boy Cubs on the North Side. Their image wasn’t befitting of a rust belt factory kid. In the White Sox, I discovered the grit, passion, character, and underdog flair the Yankees lacked. I loved that the players could be themselves and yet play a win or die style of baseball. I loved that the peoples’ promoter, Bill Veeck, had once owned the team. I loved the exploding scoreboard and the doomed promotions and the overall hard rock band edge of the team. I cheered them hard, and occasionally against the Yankees, as they marched to their 2008 division title in the most thrilling fashion possible.
Decision: Way too close to call. I clung to the Yankees as a link to Buffalo when I was in Chicago, and I’m doing the same with the White Sox now. It’s as equal as it gets, and placing one above the other will depend on my mood when they meet on the baseball diamond.
Football: Buffalo Bills/Chicago Bears
Buffalo Bills is a stupid name, and the team itself still loses for winning. The arguable greatest running back of all time, the first man to ever rush for 2000 yards in a single season (and still the only one to do it in 14 games) is a murderer. No other team ever made it to four straight Super Bowls, and I guarantee that if that ever happens again, that other team isn’t going to lose all four. These I can handle. I draw the line at the Toronto series, which robs the team of a home game and puts them into what is considered enemy territory in a sports context. I cheer for the Bills, but if you come to Buffalo and suggest the team is purposely tanking to squander any goodwill toward it to make moving easier, we’ll actually agree.
The Bears were one of the founding members of the NFL. They won their division when I first came to Chicago, and during their Super Bowl season, they were just a joy to watch. They made everything they did look easy. Then they lost the Super Bowl, but gee, it isn’t like I hadn’t watched my home team do THAT before! Even so, it’s a reputation thing: The Bills garner laughs and contempt everywhere, even when they’re doing well. The Bears garner admiration and respect from everyone, except maybe Packers fans.
Decision: You’re best off asking me this again once the Bills move out of Buffalo.
Basketball: New York Knicks/Chicago Bulls
Basketball is the sport in Buffalo that’s more chosen than inherited. I chose the Knicks simply for my state loyalty – in other words, it’s just easier. Most basketball watchers here align themselves with the Boston Celtics. But as my understanding of the sport grew, I began to appreciate the mental toughness of the team. They could never beat the Bulls during my lifetime, but they were a hard playing team that, after those tough, heartbreaking losses, would get up and fight again. Also, even during the doomed Isiah Thomas days, they were entertaining. But they have two major strikes against them: First of all, most people in upstate New York believe they have more in common culturally with the midwest, so being in the most overhyped section of New York City isn’t considered a good thing. Second, the Knicks share an arena with a hockey team I hate – the New York Rangers.
With the success of the Bulls in the 90’s, it’s easy to forget they weren’t always a glamor team. They were the scrappy little team that could. Like the Knicks, they always got back up after falling repeatedly to Detroit in the 80’s, and 1991, they got back up and went all the way. Then they did it again five more times, and in doing so, they became one of the great success stories in sports. The Bulls were never supposed to contend, but not only did they completely reverse their fortunes, they did it in a way which made them popular throughout the world. They were Chicago’s third attempt at a basketball team, and they were destined to be doormats forever. But they became a team synonymous with the sport they play, and the greatest player of all time.
Decision: Bulls. I don’t want Michael Jordan to kick my ass.
Ultimately, though, I’m like my mother, a fan of them all, even through rivalries. But my bandwagon is now full, so this is it, no matter where I go from here.